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Another Side to Dickens--the Father,
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This review is from: Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens (Hardcover)
In this year of the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth, there have been a number of good biographies of the author published. The best of them, however, seem to be those that take a different tack than the huge overview of his entire life. This one joins that short list, for Mr. Gottlieb has provided us with a look at Dickens through providing us with short biographies of his children.
In most biographies Dickens does not shine as a husband and father. Granted, this part of his life is often lost under the avalanche of information about his writing. In addition, his parenting is colored by two telling things: his nearly universally condemned (and rightly so) treatment of his wife, Catherine, while separating from her which included his attempts to forbid his children to see her; and his often-voiced disappointment in his children's lack of achievement in his letters. Unfortunately, these events of his latter life can be misleading.
Mr. Gottlieb does a nice job of showing us the real story of the Dickens children in brief biographical entries for each child. In fact, since he divides their stories into pre- and post-Dickens death, most of the children get two entries. And what comes out is that most of his children end up as reasonably successful adults with two of the ten--Kate and Henry--becoming fairly well-known in their own right: Kate as a portrait painter and Henry as a lawyer and judge, eventually knighted for his service to the country. Even some who take severe tongue lashings in Dickens' letters turn out well when objective eyes are opened. Alfred and Plorn have some success in Australia. Charley, especially, shows strong literary abilities as an editor and manager once Dickens lets him try his hand though, of course, he will never become the author his father was.
What Mr. Gottlieb recognizes is that it will be difficult for a man who pulled himself up from poverty through talent, indefatigable energy, and a lot of hard work to accept that his children will be anything less than hugely successful. Frankly, despite the carping and complaining we find in many of his letters, Dickens must have been a loving father. He was clearly at his best with young children, but he also made provision for each of his children as they grew and did his best to get them started on careers; in some cases, multiple times. If he was sometimes critical and worried that his children wouldn't amount to anything, that seems fair when some of his kids ran up debts and abandoned situations Dickens found for them. Besides, it is interesting to see how much Dickens' children loved him, even decades after his death and the need for pleasing him or protecting his legacy would seem to have passed.
Mr. Gottlieb also deserves credit for briefly looking at the evidence for Dickens having an eleventh child with his mistress, Ellen Ternan. Most of this comes from Claire Tomalin's work on the subject which I have commented on elsewhere (and in a somewhat similar vein to Gottlieb). He finishes with a short connection between Dickens and his fictional children.
In the end, this is an easily digestible book that adds a lot of flavor to other, larger biographies of Dickens. In so many of these other books, Dickens children are mentioned only in passing and we get little sense of this part of Dickens' life. Having this information available makes for a much more complete picture of the author and Mr. Gottlieb should be congratulated on his work.